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Researchers discover how neglect changes the developing brain, and how these changes can be reversed

by CIFAR Sep 14 / 12

According to UNICEF, an estimated 8 million children live in institutional settings worldwide. Many of these children suffer from a wide range of cognitive and developmental problems associated with physical and psychological neglect.

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of researchers, including CIFAR Advisory Committee member Charles Nelson (Harvard), was the first to compare the brain development of institutionalized children with the brain development of children who were transferred to foster families early on in life. The purpose of the research was to see whether removal from institutional care reversed some of the cognitive and developmental problems that the children experienced as they matured.

Researchers selected 136 children between the ages of 6 and 31 months in age who were living in institutions in Bucharest, Romania and split them into two groups. Half were placed in high-quality foster care, the other half were left in institutional care. Twelve years later, researchers scanned the brains of both groups. The results showed that positive interventions, such as foster care, were able to change how these children developed.

Brain scans of institutionalized children showed less white matter volume than those of children placed in foster families. White matter, a tissue responsible for cognition, connects the various regions of the brain. Low volumes of white matter have been linked to many neurological and psychiatric conditions. The volumes of white matter of children placed in foster care were indistinguishable from volumes found in normal brain development, showing the brain’s incredible ability to ‘catch up.’

“This project is one of a kind,” says Dr. Nelson, “because there has never been a randomized controlled trial of foster care as an intervention for early institutionalization. It is also the first study to scan the brains of currently institutionalized children.”

The team hopes to continue their research of both groups as they mature into adulthood.